Depending on who you asked, FN Meka was either the next frontier in music or the death knell for human artists. FN Meka amassed millions of followers on TikTok, and as the hype grew around it, music industry executives took notice. In August, Capitol Records announced that she had signed on to the virtual character.
The questions raised by the FN Meka case, then, are not inherently related to the ethics of technology in music. Instead, some experts say, technology is just one layer in the larger conversations about cultural appropriation, copyright, and ownership.
Virtual artists are on the rise
FN Meka’s digital personality – and how easily it is embraced by audiences – reflects a cultural shift underway.
Latif Garrett, director of music for virtual record company Spirit Bomb and a seasoned expert in the field, says virtual characters open up new creative opportunities for real-life artists. Virtual personalities can allow artists to experiment with new music styles, reach new audiences, and access new revenue streams without necessarily being the face of the music. But he says it’s crucial for real-life artists to have an interest in developing those characters – which was not the case for FN Meka.
Kyle the Hooligan, who is black, said he was the original voice of FN Meka and helped shape his voice. He claimed he got the promise of equality in character but eventually got under the shadows, telling VICE “They took me out of it like they basically used me for the culture.” He said that it wasn’t until after he was cut off from the project that he learned of certain creative choices that have since been criticized – nor did he realize that FN Meka had signed a record deal.
“You can’t work alongside black artists by creating a virtual black artist,” Garrett says. “Importantly, you cannot replicate the experience of black or black culture through virtual artists, unless blacks are involved in creating that character.”
“It is important that when building these virtual artists and AI technology companies, those who make decisions about character and music development reflect the community they are trying to reach,” says Garrett. “I definitely think having a diverse workforce would solve a lot of the problems we see in this situation.”
Virtual characters also create distance between creators and their creation, says Gigi Johnson, who leads the Maremel Institute, a think-tank focused on the intersections of creativity and technology. At the height of FN Meka’s popularity, there was little clarity about exactly who was behind the character, confusing consumers and making it easy for developers to evade accountability.
In cases where AI is already generating or assisting music, the questions get even more murky.
“Who makes the decision on whether to repeal or amend this?” Johnson says. “Who is behind this work?”
AI still has significant limitations
FN Meka’s music may not have been created by AI. But through thick and thin, artists and researchers have already experimented with artificial intelligence to try to push music to new heights.
For these reasons, Nina Eidsheim, professor of musicology at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music, sees AI as another tool that musicians can use to create art — not as a substitute for the artist.
“There will be some loopholes, and there will be things we didn’t imagine,” says Edsheim. “As much as AI creates itself, what’s interesting is how we as human artists translate it and maybe take it into our own art industry – or reject it.”
Hip-hop has struggled with such questions when it comes to sampling for a long time. But advances in artificial intelligence are now allowing people to go far beyond just taking a piece of someone else’s work.
“Is it okay to literally test someone’s character? Are we okay with that, as a society?” Herndon said in the interview with FADER. “And if we’re okay with that, how is it done within the power structures that we already have in society?”
And as more artists are included in the datasets that feed these algorithms, it will become more difficult to keep track of which items were borrowed from and who, Johnson says.
“If you really can’t put a pie back apart from its ingredients, who should get paid for the whole thing?” Says.
Technology has changed music for a long time
Technology has been transforming music and art on a larger scale for generations. And when it comes to AI specifically, other recent attempts force us to grapple with more in-depth questions than FN Meka has ever done.
The incident also called into question what, precisely, constitutes art: is there less value in the work if the artist’s only participation is the crafting of the vector who produced the image? When applied to music, does the use of AI reduce the technical skill that was previously essential to songmaking? Or does it take advantage of a new skill set and reduce entry barriers?
While AI systems have come up with rough estimations of current music, and can do so on a scale beyond humans, they still rely on real artists to fuel and fine-tune the bottom line. What develops then is who becomes an artist and how artists work.
“Whatever we make, or how we use AI, it is not going to stand out from any of the things that humans do because we participate in it,” says Edsheim.